Time for Viruses to "Go Viral"

Kinsa's new Groups feature shows the power of a social network purpose-built to track & stop the spread of illness

Facebook was not created to improve our health. But by connecting people, it has helped. For example, using Facebook saved sweet toddler Grace Freeman’s life when a nurse friend spotted a rare eye cancer in an ordinary snap of the 2-year-old. Mining Facebook (as well as twitter and blogs) also enabled the Los Angeles public health department to rapidly identify and trace the source of a strange illness that quickly hit 439 people – ultimately to legionella bacteria that was found in the whirlpool spa at the Playboy Mansion.

Illness is a social thing. After all, long before the word “viral” meant “rapidly spreading” it meant “rapidly spreading illness,” a medical term. And so it seems obvious that diagnosing, tracking and figuring out how to treat an illness all happen a lot quicker when you are connected. But until now, no social network has been purpose-built to track and stop the spread of disease. That’s the mission of the company I started, Kinsa. To be fair, it’s been my mission for many years now, stemming back to my role as Executive Vice President of the Clinton Health Access Initiative.

 At Kinsa, we started with the most basic of diagnostic tools—the thermometer—and appified it to create a communication channel for just-fallen-ill. After all, the thermometer is the go-to tool used to confirm an illness. Internet connectivity (though the smartphone and its app), however, made it possible to turn this basic medical product from an isolated experience into a network, where your experience becomes better the more users join the network. Through the app, we provide you with the ability to easily track and monitor your family’s symptoms, and by aggregating data from all users on the network, give you information about “what’s going around” your community. This can help you react intelligently to any illness that might be lurking nearby – so you know when to take extra precautions or even know what your own child is coming down with.

 We are now seeing the benefits of the network. We recently launched new functionality, called Groups, in our free Kinsa app. For the past month, families attending 14 preschool and elementary petri dishes (a.k.a. schools) across the country have been able to see aggregated and anonymized data about what has been going around. They’ve been able to write health-related messages to each other and warn about spreading illnesses. And it’s working. For example:

 Two weeks ago, one mother wrote on our app’s private message board for a large, economically disadvantaged public elementary school in Austin, Texas. “My daughter woke up at 3AM crying of a headache and stomach ache. Her cheeks were rosy and body was burning up. Anyone know what’d going on?”

 Immediately, a reply appeared: “Our 4 year old daughter and kinder son both have the rosy cheeks. The doctor diagnosed it as Fifth’s disease. There’s definitely a case going around. It’s a virus and I’ve been told you can’t really treat it – just get through it.”

 The original mom wrote back: “So pretty much a waste of time to head to Urgent Care?”

In many ways, this is the same conversation that happens in the school pick-up line or at the nearby playground anyway – it isn’t an official diagnosis and isn’t treated as one. But in this case, it was knowledge and reassurance when a parent needed it most. It also kept a child out of an urgent care room during flu season. And it gave the parent more information with which to call her pediatrician, leading to a quicker and more informed official diagnosis.

 Most exciting to us at Kinsa, it showed our vision coming to life. Within weeks of our beta launch, our mission of helping people better respond to spreading illness is happening. Parents of children with runny noses are letting each other know when their pediatrician tells them that cedar and mold allergens are high. Others are warning that according to their doctor, the flu shot was not effective against the current “Flu B” going around the school. It’s just the beginning, but it’s promising – and the >1000 parents using Kinsa Groups at the 14 schools in our pilot are telling us how much they are coming to rely on it.

 So last week, we decided to open up the Groups functionality for all Kinsa app users. Today, you can just join public school groups, but soon anyone will be able to create a group – for a neighborhood, playgroup, office, or anywhere else germs are readily shared and swapped.

 We know it’s just the tip of the iceberg toward our goal of tracking and stopping the spread of disease, but it’s an iceberg we feel is well worth chipping away at together. As long as all of us promise to use hand sanitizer and cough into our elbows.

Note: Anyone who joins a Kinsa Group through March 14 will get $10 off the Kinsa Smart Thermometer. Just download the app and join a Group.